(WHTM) May 12 is National Limerick Day, when we celebrate the puckish poetry that always seems to sound amusing, no matter how serious the subject matter.

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So where did the limerick come from, when was the first Limerick composed, and why is a limerick called a limerick? These are all mysteries surrounded by guesses. Some suggest credit for the first limerick goes to Saint Augustine, who composed a short verse sometime in the 13th Century. It does fit the stress pattern and rhyme scheme of a limerick, but it’s in Latin, and I”m willing to bet he didn’t call it a limerick.

There are also some limericks in Shakespeare, hiding amongst all the iambic pentameter. But the person most responsible for putting limericks on the literary map was British artist and writer Edward Lear (1812-1888) whose Book of Nonsense, published in 1846, is full of them. As for the name “limerick” the best guess (and I emphasize guess) is that it comes from an Irish soldiers’ song from the 1700s, with the chorus “Will You Come Up to Limerick?”

So what are the ground rules for limericks? First, they must have five lines. Lines one, two, and five rhyme with each other, and have eight or nine syllables. Lines three and four rhyme with each other, and have five or six syllables. (Usually, lines three and four do not rhyme with lines one, two, and five.) The stresses in the lines are what is called an anapestic metric foot, meaning two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable:

  1. da-da-DAH-da-da-DAH-da-da-DAH,*
  2. da-da-DAH-da-da-DAH-da-da-DAH,
  3. da-da-DAH-da-da-DAH,
  4. da-da-DAH-da-da-DAH,
  5. da-da-DAH-da-da-DAH-da-da-DAH.
  • Lose the first “da” for eight and five-syllable lines.

Though it’s not a hard and fast rule, limericks often begin with “There once was a…” or “There was a…”

But enough of the literary history, let’s look at some examples, starting with the esteemed Mr. Lear:

There was an Old Man with a beard
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

There was an Old Man who supposed,
That the street door was partially closed;
But some very large rats,
Ate his coats and his hats,
While that futile old gentleman dozed.

There was a Young Lady whose bonnet,
Came untied when the birds sat upon it;
But she said: ‘I don’t care!
All the birds in the air
Are welcome to sit on my bonnet!’

There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin:
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.

Lewis Carroll, no slouch at creating nonsense verse himself (see Alice in Wonderland) also tried his hand at limerick-smithing:

There was a young lady of station
“I love man” was her sole exclamation
But when men cried, “You flatter”
She replied, “Oh! no matter!
Isle of Man is the true explanation.

There was once a young man of Oporta,
Who daily got shorter and shorter,
The reason he said
Was the hod on his head,
Which was filled with the heaviest mortar.

Rudyard Kipling squeezed in some limericks between his more serious novels and poetry:

THERE was a small boy of Quebec,
Who was buried in snow to his neck;
When they said. “Are you friz?”
He replied, “Yes, I is—
But we don’t call this cold in Quebec.”

Gilbert and Sullivan built an entire song on the limerick form in their play The Sorcerer:

My name is John Wellington Wells,
I’m a dealer in magic and spells,
In blessings and curses,
And ever-fill’d purses,
In prophecies, witches, and knells.

And here are a few from that most prolific multi-talented author, artist, and composer-Anonymous:

A painter, who lived in Great Britain,
Interrupted two girls with their knittin’
He said, with a sigh,
“That park bench–well I
Just painted it, right where you’re sittin.'”

For added fun, you can always slip a little wordplay into the wordplay:

One Saturday morning at three
A cheese-monger’s shop in Paree
Collapsed to the ground
With a thunderous sound
Leaving only a pile of de brie.

Time out for Science:

There was a young woman named Kite,
Whose speed was much faster than light,
She set out one day,
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.

Then there’s this one:

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

This poem points out one of the main problems facing the limerick in the modern world–the belief that limericks are inherently vulgar, naughty, rude, and (at times) lewd. Such, of course, is not the case, but alas, that is often the perception. Not to worry; you need only search “clean limericks” on the internet, and you’ll find plenty of limericks you can safely read to your children.

For some reason, the word Nantucket frequently comes up in discussions of off-color limericks. So, in the interest of balance, I close this story with a limerick that contains the word Nantucket. but is quite inoffensive.

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket
His daughter, named Nan
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.